Managing the return to work and the workplace

Published 12 June 2020 | Updated 1 December 2021

To return to work safely, it’s important that employers manage the transition back to the workplace and adapt to their new operating environment.

Health and safety in the workplace

All employers are required to take care of the health, safety and welfare of all workers, customers and visitors at their workplace. Employers and employees need to consider their obligations under workplace health and safety (WHS) laws in their state or territory when reopening.

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When an employee is unwell

Once employees start returning to the workplace, it’s important to make sure that employees don’t go to work if they have symptoms of COVID-19. Where they do, they should notify their employer as soon as possible. For information about pay and leave entitlements when an employee is sick, or needs to stay away from the workplace for health reasons, see:

Learn about general workplace entitlements when employees get tested for COVID-19 at Employees getting COVID-19 tests.

Employees also can’t be dismissed or injured in their employment because they have a responsibility under a workplace health and safety law to quarantine or self-isolate. Learn more at Protections at work.

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Lifting stand downs

Employers should stay up to date on any enforceable government directions in the relevant state or territory about when employees have to work from home or another location.

As businesses start operating again, employers may need to lift the stand down directions they’ve given their employees.

When an employer is lifting a stand down, it's best practice to communicate early with affected employees in writing. Consultation and cooperation between employers and employees have significant benefits and can help workplaces cope better with change. See our Consultation and cooperation in the workplace best practice guide.

Consultation when lifting a stand down may also be a requirement under an applicable award or agreement, employment contract or workplace policy. All awards and enterprise agreements contain consultation provisions, which could apply in these circumstances.

An employee can’t refuse an employer’s direction to perform work if the direction is reasonable.

For more information, see:

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Alternative working arrangements

States and territories may continue to have rules during the pandemic about people working from home (if they can). Stay up to date on the restrictions in your state or territory and Check your state and territory restrictions and requirements.

Employers should continue exploring alternative working arrangements in their workplace, particularly while social distancing rules or other workplace health and safety measures may apply.

Some of the ways this can happen include:

  • staggering employees’ start and finish times
  • rotating working from home (if possible) to allow for more space in the workplace
  • scheduling breaks or shift changes to avoid crowding at exits, lifts and break rooms.

Employers and employees can also use any rules in an applicable award, agreement or employment contract to agree on or make changes to their:

  • hours of work or duties
  • type of employment (for example, changing from full-time to part-time).

More information:

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Record-keeping

All employers need to keep certain records about their employees and their working arrangements, including hours of work and leave. Employers should make sure their records are up to date to enable a smooth transition back to the workplace.

Employers should make sure they have accurate records of service and leave for any time that employees weren’t working.

If an employee’s hours were temporarily reduced under an award flexibility schedule, leave entitlements accrue based on the employee’s normal hours of work before the reduction started.

Employers should also keep records about the return to work, such as:

  • records of any notifications to return to work or lift a stand down
  • records of any agreed alternative working arrangements
  • records of any agreements made under an applicable award, agreement or employment contract (for example, agreements about returning on less hours, working from home, or working staggered shifts).

It’s best practice to consult regularly with employees and keep records of those discussions.

More information, templates and guides are available at the following links:

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Use our employer tool and checklist

Our Returning to the workplace – interactive employer tool helps employers manage the return to work and the workplace during coronavirus.

The tool helps employers find information about returning to the workplace, scaling up operations and adapting to workplace changes. It can help you find the information you need when:

  • transitioning employees back to the workplace, including lifting a stand down
  • changing employees’ hours, duties or work location
  • introducing alternative working options for staff
  • keeping up to date with changes to workplace laws.

Use the Returning to the workplace – interactive employer tool now.

Employers can download our Return to work checklist for small business (DOCX) (PDF) to help make sure they’ve got key issues covered when bringing employees back to the workplace.

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